service advisors

Service Advisors Exempt from FLSA

Encino Motorcars, LLC is an automobile dealership. Encino’s service advisors filed a lawsuit alleging that Encino violated the FLSA by failing to pay them overtime compensation when they worked more than 40 hours in a week. At issue in this case is whether the Department of Labor’s interpretation of the service advisor exemption is valid.

History of Service Advisors Exemption under the FLSA

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to pay over­time compensation to covered employees who work more than 40 hours in a given week. In 1966, Congress enacted an exemption from the overtime compensation requirement for “any salesman, parts-man, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automo­biles” at a covered dealership. Congress authorized the Department of Labor to promulgate necessary rules, regulations, or orders with respect to this new provision. The Department exercised that authority in 1970 and issued a regulation that defined “salesman” to mean “an employee who is employed for the purpose of and is primarily engaged in making sales or obtaining orders or contracts for sale of the vehicles . . . which the establishment is primarily engaged in selling.” 29 CFR §779.372(c)(1) (1971).

The regulation excluded service advisors, who sell repair and maintenance services but not vehicles, from the ex­emption. Several courts, however, rejected the Department’s conclusion that service advisors are not covered by the statutory exemption. In 1978, the Department issued an opinion letter departing from its previous position and stating that service advisors could be exempt under 29 U. S. C. §213(b)(10)(A). In 1987, the Department confirmed its new interpretation by amending its Field Operations Handbook to clarify that service advisors should be treated as exempt under the statute. In 2011, however, the Department issued a final rule that followed the original 1970 regulation and interpreted the statutory term “salesman” to mean only an employee who sells vehicles. 76 Fed. Reg. 18859. The Department gave little explanation for its deci­sion to abandon its decades-old practice of treating service advisors as exempt under §213(b)(10)(A).

Does the FLSA Apply to Service Advisors?

Encino argued that the FLSA overtime provisions do not apply because service advisors are covered by an exemption in §213(b)(10)(A).The District Court granted the motion, but the Ninth Circuit reversed in relevant part. Deferring under Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837, to the interpretation set forth in the 2011 regulation, the court held that service advisors are not covered by the §213(b)(10)(A) exemption.

The Ninth Circuit held that section 213(b)(10)(A) must be construed without placing controlling weight on the Department’s 2011 regulation.

According to the court:

When an agency is authorized by Congress to issue regulations and promulgates a regulation interpreting a statute it enforces, the interpretation receives deference if the statute is ambiguous and the agency’s interpretation is reasonable. See Chevron, supra, at 842–844. When Congress authorizes an agency to proceed through notice-and-comment rulemaking, that procedure is a “very good indicator” that Congress intended the regulation to carry the force of law, so Chevron should apply. United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U. S. 218, 229–230. But Chevron deference is not warranted where the regulation is “procedurally defective”—that is, where the agency errs by failing to follow the correct procedures in issuing the regulation. 533 U. S., at 227.

One basic procedural requirement of administrative rulemaking is that an agency must give adequate reasons for its decisions. Where the agency has failed to provide even a minimal level of analysis, its action is arbitrary and capricious and so cannot carry the force of law. Agencies are free to change their existing policies, but in explaining its changed position, an agency must be cognizant that longstanding policies may have “engendered serious reliance interests that must be taken into account.” FCC v. Fox Television Sta­tions, Inc., 556 U. S. 502, 515. An “[u]nexplained inconsistency” in agency policy is “a reason for holding an interpretation to be an arbitrary and capricious change from agency practice,” National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. v. Brand X Internet Services, 545 U. S. 967, 981, and an arbitrary and capricious regulation of this sort re­ceives no Chevron deference.

Applying those principles, the Ninth Circuit determined that the 2011 regulation was issued without the reasoned explanation that was required in light of the Department’s change in position and the significant reliance interests position that service advisors are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime pay requirements. Employers had negotiated and structured compensation plans against this background understanding. In light of this background, “the Department needed a more reasoned explanation for its decision to depart from its existing enforcement policy.” The Department instead said almost nothing. It did not analyze or explain why the statute should be interpreted to exempt dealership employees who sell vehicles but not dealership employees who sell services. “This lack of reasoned explication for a regulation that is inconsistent with the Department’s longstanding earlier position results in a rule that cannot carry the force of law, and so the regulation does not receive Chevron deference.”

This is not the first time the DOL has changed courses and reinterpreted the law. In this instance, the court found that the DOL’s failure to include a reasoned explanation regarding the change of course was sufficient to render the DOL’s interpretation void.